Bill’s Book Blog, 2/13/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last week!

First up, I finished Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, trans. Ken Liu (original published in Chinese in 2010, translation published in English in 2016), and with it, the entire Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, which began with The Three-Body Problem. It’s a helluva thing! As with the previous two books in the trilogy (I discussed the last one here), Liu deals with approximately one million high-concept ideas in this book, so it’s difficult to quickly summarize it. But here’s my best attempt, which will inevitably carry spoilers for the previous two books in the series:

Humanity has established what it calls “dark forest deterrence” with the hostile alien fleet from the previous books. The “dark forest” is a metaphor for the state of galactic civilization, and is also an attempt to solve the Fermi Paradox. Basically, the metaphor suggests that the galaxy is a dark forest full of hunters who are also prey, and who have no choice but to shoot first if they see another moving figure. By this, Liu means that a basic sort of game theoretic approach to galactic diplomacy indicates that any civilization must treat any other civilization as an existential threat due to the potential technology gaps possible, and must therefore destroy it immediately rather than allow it to continue. I’m not 100% convinced by this argument, but it’s interesting to see how he walks through the ramifications of this theory.

What this means for the novel is that at the beginning of Death’s End, the invading alien fleet is kept in a state of stasis, because Earth has figured out how to transmit a message to the galaxy that would contain the coordinates of both Earth and Trisolaris (the alien homeworld). If the aliens invade, Earth will transmit this message, and some other nameless galactic civilization will inevitably destroy both Earth and Trisolaris. This keeps the two civilizations in a state of uneasy detente. Will the deterrent hold, or will Trisolaris invade anyway? And what will happen to the two spaceships that left the Sol system at the end of the last book, intent on starting a new human civilization?

The answers to these questions end up taking our characters through hundreds (and, ultimately, billions) of years, and the rapid pace with which Liu bounces between eras in humanity’s later history can be disorienting. Asimov’s Foundation series continues to be the best reference point I’m aware of for this series, but ultimately the scale of Liu’s series dwarfs even that of Asimov’s — Liu ultimately ends up asking questions about the entire history of the universe.

It’s hard for me to say how well it ultimately works. Liu has more fascinating ideas in any given hundred page stretch of this trilogy than some science fiction authors get in a lifetime, but he bounces between them so quickly that I don’t know if we really get enough time to dwell with any of them. His characters are also never more than sketches or stand-ins for philosophical positions, which is not necessarily a problem but does make it harder to really grapple with the psychological questions he’s interested in. What does it do to the world when every human knows that the only thing preventing them being conquered by a vastly technologically superior alien race is the threat of blowing up both civilizations? What, specifically, does it do to know that one person, living in a bunker in China, ultimately will make the decision about whether or not to blow up the worlds? Liu tells us how these (and other) facts impact society, but I’m not sure we can really appreciate it, since he flits by it so quickly and his characters don’t feel very real. Regardless, it’s a fascinating trilogy, and while it’s unlikely to break into my all-time favorites list, I keep finding myself thinking about it.

From there I decided to finish the Zuckerman Bound trilogy (plus epilogue), so I read The Anatomy Lesson, by Philip Roth (1983). Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, starts The Anatomy Lesson suddenly experiencing terrible chronic pain after the death of his mother. While trying to deal with this excruciating pain, he self-medicates with alcohol, painkillers, marijuana, and a tremendous amount of sex with several different women, all of whom take care of him and/or berate him in different ways. Ultimately, he gets it in his head that he wants to quit being a writer and become a doctor, and the end of the book is a comedy of errors as his drunk and ridiculous self tries to talk a friend into helping him get into medical school.

This trilogy (which began with The Ghost Writer) is the only Roth I’ve ever read, and I get why he’s an acquired taste, and I don’t think I’m likely to read everything he ever wrote. The book is mostly a long introspective monologue, interrupted by conversations between Zuckerman and (mostly) the various women he’s shtupping (usually while lying supine on a mat on the ground, the better to support his neck and shoulders). As with the rest of the trilogy, it’s concerned with Zuckmeran’s (and therefore Roth’s) various neuroses deriving from being a successful yet controversial Jewish writer in the years after World War II, who both loves sex and casual flings but also feels deeply ridiculous about his promiscuity. It’s also very funny, and Roth can write a sentence with the best of them. Consider, for instance, part of a long rant Zuckerman goes on when he decides he wants to be a doctor:

“I want to be an obstetrician. Who quarrels with an obstetrician? Even the obstetrician who delivered Bugsy Siegel goes to bed at night with a clear conscience. He catches what comes out and everybody loves him. When the baby appears they don’t start shouting, ‘You call that a baby? That’s not a baby!’ No, whatever he hands them, they take at home. They’re grateful for his just having been there.”

After The Anatomy Lesson came The Prague Orgy, by Philip Roth (1985), a slim 86-page volume that serves as a postscript to the rest of the Zuckerman trilogy. (My understanding is that Roth uses Zuckerman as a narrator for several more books, but those are more of a Nick-Carraway-in-Gatsby situation where the book is about somebody else, and Zuckerman is just witnessing/commenting upon the events of the plot.) In this one, Zuckerman decides to go to Prague to rescue a trove of Yiddish stories, and gets tangled up with the bizarre artists living under censorship in Czechoslovakia in 1976, as well as with the repressive government that’s censoring them. Things, as you might expect, don’t work out the way Zuckerman wants them to.

The trilogy as a whole is at least partly about how Zuckerman (and, therefore, Roth) fits into society as a Jewish artist, and the postscript tries to place that into a broader, trans-national context. What is it like to be a successful American Jew who then goes into a different country? Why, exactly, does Zuckerman (who does not particularly speak Yiddish) want to rescue these stories so badly? What will he do with them once he gets them?

It’s a slight novel, and it also may be more openly misogynistic than the others in the series: I feel as though Olga, the Prague sex kitten who tries to seduce Zuckerman, has much less interiority than the other quasi-disposable women Zuckerman sleeps with throughout the rest of the series. I may not read much more Roth after this (though I’ll probably have to read Portnoy’s Complaint at some point), but I’m glad I read these.

Finally this week, I read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn (1992), which is apparently super famous but which I had never heard of until a few weeks ago. Ishmael is essentially one long Socratic dialogue wrapped up in a framing narrative. The Socrates of this dialogue is a sentient gorilla named Ishmael, who teaches the unnamed narrator a great deal about human nature. It sounds significantly sillier than it actually is.

The book is essentially a philosophical/anthropological essay, and it might be summarized like this: much of the problems in global society stem from the fact that we adopt an anthropocentric focus and assume that humanity is immune to certain biological laws about food/population. Because we don’t perceive ourselves as animals subject to natural laws, we do things like fight wars, stockpile food, outgrow our population limits, and try to control each other. Human civilizations that live in better harmony with biological laws (prehistorical hunter-gatherer tribes, many Native American civilizations, African tribal civilizations, etc.) are nearly always happier than more “advanced” civilizations, and also don’t destroy the planet while they’re at it. So we should figure out some way to change our current civilization so that it understands biological laws, or else we’ll drive ourselves extinct and take a lot of other creatures with us.

A summary of the book is not nearly as effective as the actual argument itself. Whatever else the book does well, it showcases the power of the Socratic dialogue, and I enjoyed the book immensely as I read it. He deals with a lot of high-concept ideas, but does so clearly and persuasively, so I get why the book was apparently such a huge success when it came out.

As to what I think about the argument itself, we probably don’t have time for all of that here. I think his willingness to say that the whole human civilizational project is built on shaky foundations is admirable, and, speaking as a Christian and also a socialist, I can’t really disagree with that. (His analysis of the Fall story is kind of fascinating, though I can’t speak to the historical claims he makes about how the story came to be, and suspect it’s more complicated than he suggests). I am troubled about some of the implications of his theory, and though he takes care to point out that he’s not advocating for any sort of totalitarian solution to the problems of human civilization, I think you could get from Ishmael to ecofascism fairly quickly. Further, anybody who quotes approvingly from Malthus gets at least a skeptical look from me. But the book got me to thinking, and I may try to write more about it at some point in the future after I’ve chewed on it some more.

Current Progress: 16/104, or 15.4%.

Current average pagecount: 272.125.

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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